There is no safe harbor from change

I continue to see news people wishing upon stars for some salvation from the change bearing down on them: fairy godmothers who will swoop in from government or foundations or rich families to provide magic money that lets them continue to do business as they have. Consider this Columbia Journalism Review piece wishing for government support of news and this New York Times report setting up the Poynter-Institute-owned St. Petersburg Times as an ideal.

Those ways, danger lies.

It’s not as if these models can’t work. Look at the government-funded BBC or the trust-supported Guardian (where, full disclosure, I write and consult). I’m not saying either direction is wrong. I am saying that finding such support does not insulate one from change. Quite the contrary, I’d say it morally obligates one to change. But that’s not what these wishful thinkers see in these models. They see protection.

The problem I have with the thinking in the pieces linked above, especially in CJR, is that it assumes that the way things have been done is the way they should continue to be done; it values preservation over innovation. It assumes that big organizations are the best ones to gather and deliver our news, when small may well hold much of the future of journalism. And it ignores the shoddy stewardship that many of these incumbent organizations have shown for news, squandering the incredible advantages their monopolies gave them while not innovating for the future and while losing the trust of the public.

And, of course, in the case of government support, there are the grave dangers of government interference in the press and speech. CJR goes so far as to proclaim, “To survive, journalism and journalists need to let go of their aversion to Uncle Sam.” Good God. Journalism exists to have an aversion to Uncle Sam. When government supports journalism, will journalism support government? In Murdoch’s purchase of Dow Jones, I heard people complain first that he interferes and then that he didn’t have to interfere because his underlings would fear displeasing him. Imagine that kind of thinking when your boss isn’t one mogul but a thousand politicians and their millions of complaining constituents.

And today, it’s more complicated than than just giving money to PBS and NPR. If government were to support journalism now, whom should they support: the big, old newspaper or the scrappy, inventive blogger? Doesn’t Gawker do journalism? Can’t a condo association’s blog? Who’s to say? Well, government will say, and that means that government would certify and decertify journalists. What government gives, it can take away.

The next problem I have with the notion of government support is that it instills, as it has in both American journalism and in British broadcasting, the myth of impartial, objective journalism. That, I’ve argued, is an aberration in media, a departure from news as the public conversation of interested parties. It is the product of public subsidy and market monopoly. It makes journalists believe that they can serve all equally and that they — not we — are the ones who should decide what is impartial and objective and balanced without having to reveal their own perspectives. It makes journalism less transparent, thus less honest.

The CJR piece makes the case for government support in the form of subsidy for research and development, including technology like electronic paper. Well, government does provide tax breaks for R&D now. But I think that were we to support research and invention, it should be open and for all to share — The Times as much as Engadget. And I think it is a mistake to believe that where we need invention is in delivery methods, as if electronic paper is the salvation of newspapers (we already have electronic paper: you’re staring at it). No, I believe that the innovation we need is in methodology and education, in getting more people to practice journalism and in helping them (pro or am) do it better.

OK, most of my complaints have been about government support. What do I have against foundation or mogul support? Nothing. But as the Times story makes clear, it’s the rare family that would decide to give its great asset to a foundation rather than to its own future generations. And as presently run, newspapers are not a good investment for moguls or foundations. Still, it’s a fine and wonderful thing that the Poynter family gave its paper and the Scott family its paper, the Guardian, to trusts. My point to the wishful thinkers is that this does not then take you out of the race and the need to reinvent newspapers. Indeed, I see brave innovation at the Guardian. So I’m merely saying that these folks should stop wishing upon that star. Someone else’s money is not safe harbor.

Here’s the bottom line: Rather than trying to insulate ourselves from the marketplace with these subsidies, our challenge is instead to answer the question of whether the marketplace will support journalism and how it will do that. Does the public need and want journalism? I believe strongly that they do and they know it. So rather than trying to find money to support the old ways artificially, we need resources to invent the new ways, the ones we don’t know yet. We need to take advantage of all the opportunities we have to gather and share news in new ways while preserving the best and most valuable of the old (and sloughing off the waste of the old). We need to explore new products and new business models and new relationships and we need to show that they are good investments, not charity cases.